Jay Xu, director of San Francisco's Asian Art Museum, started off with some numbers about the museum's new exhibit, Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past: 31 artists from 15 countries, and 60 new works of art.
Those 31 artists are all living, and from countries including Japan, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Canada, and Thailand, came to the museum to discuss and display their work. That's something different for the Asian, which has one of the largest collections of historical traditional Asian art in the world. Phantoms, exploring Asian cosmology, is the museum's first large scale exhibit of contemporary art, and the museum is pulling out all the stops - parties, galas, conversations with the artists, a talk by Holland Cotter, a New York Times art critic, a discussion with the curators on where contemporary Asian art is going, and free admission to the museum on Saturday, May 19, as part of the Asian Heritage Street Celebration at Civic Center Plaza, in front of the museum.
Xu says there's another important number associated with the exhibit - the 80 works from the museum's classic collection that are on display, juxtaposed with the contemporary works.
"So much of this story is about diversity, but it's also about interconnectivity," Xu said. "It's a dialogue between old and new"
Xu made these remarks standing in the Civic Center Plaza in front of the largest of the new works of art - Breathing Flower, a 24-foot kinetic sculpture by artist Choi Jeong Hwa of a red lotus that is illuminated at night.
Mayor Ed Lee joined Xu briefly there in front of the sculpture to say how exciting it was to get to see the works of contemporary Asian artists.
"This is a wonderful city where we are getting all different perspectives from around the world," Lee said.
The exhibit is arranged in four sections: Asian Cosmologies: Envisioning the Invisible; World, Afterworld: Living Beyond Living; Myth, Ritual, Meditation: Communing with Deities; and Sacred Mountains: Encountering the Gods. After advising everyone to take a deep breath, Mami Kataoka, the chief curator of Tokyo's Mori Art Museum, who curated Phantoms, said these themes explore fundamental questions of existence such as a fear of what happens with life after dea4th and a desire to be connected. The contemporary art plays off the historical in the exhibit to awaken the senses, Kataoka said.
Allison Harding, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum, who collaborated with Kataoka on the show, added that the show makes clear the historical art objects are more than just relics of the past.
"They're able to communicate and inform the here and now," she said.
One example is a display of Chinese bronze mirrors, which have designs showing the cosmos. This is paired with photos by Poklong Anading's Anonymity series, which shows subjects holding the mirrors in front of their faces as light reflects back into the camera.
Another contemporary pieces is Takayuki Yamamoto's What Kind of Hell Will We Go To, which comes out of a workshop the Japanese artist did with school children in the Bayview. Yamamoto showed the kids Japanese paintings that depicted Buddhist thinking about punishment, virtue and vice. The students then made dioramas of their ideas of hell, and these are on display along with a video showing the children talking about them.
Adeela Suleman uses stainless steel reliefs of peacocks and trees and flowers with suicide vests and missiles to combine stories her father told her growing up in Karachi with life now.
"Death is always around us," she said. "It's part of daily life. The insecurity is unbelievable."
Adrian Wong, an artist raised in Chicago, who now lives in Hong Kong, made two rooms in the show, following the principles of feng shui. One of the rooms is auspicious and the other inauspicious. Wong, who used Korean ceremonial objects from the museum's collection, says he likes the idea of pairing contemporary work with ancient and finding the similarities between these objects. He brought up a quote from Xu: "All work is contemporary when it's made."
"The fact that we're all making things that we're putting out into the world, and then all things at some point have been made by somebody at a discreet moment in time, I think really does bridge a lot of the historical collection and the now being established contemporary collection," Wong said.
For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section.